The Rancher's Revenge

When environmentalists attacked, rancher Jim Chilton used the best ammunition he could find -- and it came from his enemy

Jim Chilton doesn't just admire cowboy values. He believes in them. And, like any true believer, he's eager to share the gospel in well-rehearsed sound bites, whenever the situation allows.

Ask him, for example, why he decided to sue one of the West's most prominent environmental groups. "I laid in bed at night, wondering if I was a cowboy or a wimp," he'll reply. "If you're a cowboy, you stand up and fight for truth, justice, integrity and honor. If you're a wimp, you lay there and go to sleep."

Or, ask about nature. "For a cowboy," he'll tell you, "every day is Earth Day."

Jim Chilton at home on the range.
New Times
Jim Chilton at home on the range.
Photo #18, seemingly a harsh indictment of Chilton's 
ranching.
A.J. Schneller, courtesy of Kraig Marton
Photo #18, seemingly a harsh indictment of Chilton's ranching.

That's why Chilton got so mad at the Center for Biological Diversity. The Center tried to make him the bad guy when he, the cowboy, was supposed to be the hero. And that was an attack no cowboy could forgive. (Forgiveness, after all, is for wimps.)

And so he sued -- a switch, given that the Center is normally the one filing the lawsuits. Chilton took the case to trial, and won one of the biggest punitive damage awards Arizona is likely to see this year.

The decision didn't affect his ability to ranch. A previous decision by the Forest Service had taken care of that. But he did win a lot of money. And in the process, he stunned the environmentalists and rankled First Amendment defenders. The Center returned to court this month, asking the judge to throw out the verdict, explaining that Chilton's victory set a dangerous precedent, one that would cripple the rights of anyone in the business of mouthing off to the government. The judge is now considering the Center's request.

To the Center, it's nothing less than a travesty of justice.

"This is a very wealthy California banker, but the jury bought into that good-old-boy rancher thing," says Kieran Suckling, one of the group's founders. "It shows that a bitter little man with a very large bank account can wage war on environmental groups in the courtroom."

Jim Chilton sees it differently. The Center didn't just lobby the government, he argues. It lied. And it was lying about him.

The difference in how the two parties view the matter, in many ways, reflects a fundamental split between the Old West and the New West.

Ranchers like Chilton will tell you that they and their families have been grazing cattle in Arizona for more than 200 years, and even if their ancestors weren't always good to the land, their profession is not intrinsically bad. In fact, they argue, they're doing better than ever before, thanks to heightened environmental pressure, but also because being good to the land is good for the business of ranching.

Meanwhile, groups like the Center have targeted cattle as one of the biggest threats facing Western ecology. They've used the presence of endangered species on federal allotments to push for heightened government regulation.

One goal has been fencing off streams to protect them, and the creatures who live on their banks, from cattle. But ranchers say limited access to water makes ranching economically impossible. They charge environmentalists with using endangered species as a Trojan horse to drum them out completely.

Alexander Thal, director of the Southwest Center for Resource Analysis at Western New Mexico University, says heightened environmental controls have led to the loss of 50,000 cattle in Arizona alone. "The ranchers are holding on, but they've had to sell off property and subdivide their land to stay in business," he says.

Tensions between the two groups are high -- so high that it took just one press release to light the bonfire.

It happened like this:

In April 2002, the U.S. Forest Service announced that it was reissuing the permit that allows Chilton and his wife, Sue, to graze cattle on 21,500 acres of public lands south of Tucson, an area called the Montana Allotment. No fans of grazing, and convinced that endangered species were threatened by the Chiltons' cattle, the Center for Biological Diversity appealed the decision in June.

But the Forest Service stuck by its decision. Its ranger basically told the Center to get lost.

And so the Center -- "the most important radical environmental group in the country," according to a profile of the group published several years ago in the New Yorker -- posted a press release on its Web site July 2, 2002. The release noted that the group had appealed the Forest Service's decision and included "photographic evidence showing excessive grazing and other problems" on Chilton's allotment. At the bottom, the Center provided a link to its appeal, along with the photographs.

The release itself isn't exactly vivid, but the 21 photos, and their captions, are. Collectively, they give the clear impression that the Chiltons' ranching techniques had turned the acreage into wasteland.

Photo after photo features the barest vegetation, crusty earth, and trampled fences. The captions tell it all. "This bare slope is compacted, crusty and dry," one notes. "New plant growth and vigor is virtually nonexistent."

Most damning, visually, is Photo #18, taken in May 2002: A pair of cows sits on a flat plane of mud, no plants in sight. "California Gulch," the appeal notes, is "completely denuded of forage and severely compacted." The cows look terribly forlorn, as if the conditions on the acreage are upsetting even to them.

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